“When the Eagles are silent, the Parrots begin to chatter.” Winston Churchill
Transformative leaders inspire people to a bigger, better future. They unite even through the darkest times. They are rare.
America has seen a number of examples of this type of leadership and they often emerge when we need them most. FDR gave America the confidence that it could work itself out of the Depression and fight its way to beating Hitler. Reagan made America believe it could rise from a period of massive stagnation and international embarrassment to lead again—in economic innovation and world affairs. Both not only sold the vision but they delivered, and as a result their core governing philosophies emerged as policy foundations for 40 years.
FDR and Reagan built broad political coalitions out of a positive vision for America and the world. They were viscerally optimistic and made large majorities believe our best days were ahead. And, we followed their lead.
Americans once again feel we are on the wrong track. Despite a robust economy and record low unemployment, 66% of Americans are unhappy with the direction of the country and 87% are worried our leaders are not up to the challenge. And, we face big ones—rising education and healthcare costs, a nuclear Iran and North Korea, high inequality, huge debt, a warming planet and much more.
The roots of our anxiety are grounded in the enormous rate of change in our economy. Globalization and the Internet have made the skills of the average American worker less valuable and driven broad-based insecurity. Yet, leaders on the left and the right do little to address this enormous change, instead rehashing well-worn ideas from a previous time: Unions! Lower taxes!
But, worse, our current leaders reflect back all our fears. They feed on our anxiety and motivate with anger and bitterness. This is the core of populist movements. Leaders parroting back our anxiety and appeasing it with reactionary answers that can win elections but tend to disappoint when it comes to governing. In the absence of a positive vision for the future, fear and anger is a great motivator.
The battle for 2020 looks to be a contest of dueling parrots reflecting visions of a dystopian future, a zero-sum perspective for a world gone wrong.
On the right, it is the old, cynical standby: xenophobia. China and Mexico took your jobs with cheap labor—or worse, by immigrating to your hometown. It’s them or you. If they win, you lose. We will protect you with tariffs, new trade deals and anti-immigration policies.
On the left, it’s also a stark choice—everyday people or the wealthy and powerful. The economy is rigged and the rich are taking from you. It’s them or you. And we will ensure you get the share they took from you by taxing them to pay for healthcare, education, housing and more—no strings attached.
No wonder America is cynical. Despite there being some merit in both perspectives, these prescriptions at their extremes are divisive and emotional with aspects of racism, paternalism and bitter class warfare. And, meanwhile, nothing is getting done.
We are being sold a Mad Max version of the future, a bitter battle for resources at the end of times.
Where is our Eagle? Who can show us the way that inspires—that gives us hope that a better future still awaits us?
Yes, inequality is reaching new highs, but the wealthy are showing strong eagerness to chip in for good solutions.
Yes, the planet is warming, but renewable energy is now cheaper than coal.
Yes, healthcare costs are rising, but many in the world have figured out how to do it cheaper and better.
Yes, legacy skills are being devalued, but new jobs are emerging that can fill the void (and can’t be outsourced).
I am not suggesting there are easy answers to these complex problems, and some real sacrifices will be required. But, we need leaders who sell ideas as achievable in non-zero-sum terms. Leaders with a belief that the future will be categorically better not just carved up differently. We need answers that embrace abundance and innovation with broad based advances—even if never fully realized. Americans will indeed make sacrifices if they believe in the path to a better future - and they want to believe.
There are voices of optimism in our midst—Michael Bennet, Amy Klobuchar and John Hickenlooper to name a few—but so far they have gained little traction. Their unifying message is met with the scorn of partisan true believers warning of compromise.
Why is pessimism selling? Ironically, it could be that things are not bad enough. The malaise is too moderate. The challenges just a bit too removed from existential crisis so we can narrow the fight for our own piece of the pie. We have not had to fully face the scope of the changes facing us to present systemic, new, but optimistic ideas that galvanize a large majority. Or perhaps it is just the inevitable response to having a bully in the top job—you need a bully to take him down.
But, the day is coming where unity fueled by an optimistic vision will be required to make the needed change. Our economy will inevitably falter. Our debts will come due.
I remain optimistic an Eagle will emerge.